Rick Starr, Grouper Researcher
“Legal fishing is a problem, but the clearly illegal fishing is as big a problem and we see fishing gear on the Nassau spawning site that’s closed and if you have people fishing, poaching, and coming in illegally, the really only good way is to put somebody there to stop that. That can be the government, in the form of the Coast Guard or the Fisheries Group or it can be a local fishing group or a local environmental group who are patrolling the site and educating people and helping to keep out the illegal fishing.”

New study says Nassau grouper is disappearing
Today international experts on fish ecology and the human impact on marine ecosystems dropped a bombshell on local environmentalists: a popular fish species is disappearing. From the depths off the Belize Barrier Reef, scientists have extracted cold hard facts for the Nassau grouper and as News Five's Janelle Chanona reports, there is no quick fix.

Enric Sala, Nassau Grouper Researcher
“We have been monitoring the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation in Glover’s Reef since 1999 and we have seen a marked decline in the numbers.”

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
According to Dr. Enric Sala, scientific studies in the waters of southern Belize show that the Nassau Grouper is on the brink of ecological extinction.

Over the past eight years, Sala and fellow researcher Rick Starr have used various types of tracking equipment to monitor the grouper spawning site at the Glover’s Reef Atoll. In January 1999, the fish experts found approximately three thousand one hundred adult Nassau groupers. This year, they discovered only five hundred and seventy examples of the species.

Enric Sala
”This dramatic decline in grouper numbers is mostly due to over fishing.”

And for Sala and his team, dramatic declines call for drastic action.

Enric Sala
”The Nassau grouper is going down in Belize and the only way of recovering the numbers, the only way of saving the grouper from extinction would be a moratorium on Nassau grouper fishing.”

Janelle Chanona
”So fishermen would have to stop catching them?”

Enric Sala
”If fishing continues at this rate, the Nassau grouper will disappear in Belize in the short term future, as it has disappeared from Florida, from the Dominican Republic, from Haiti, from Jamaica, and from many other places in the Caribbean.”

“In other places, they cannot fish them because they are gone. Here, they may be gone in the near future if we continue. So it’s a decision of the Belizean society whether you want a reef with Nassau groupers or not.”

Sala’s projections indicate that if fishing is allowed to continue as is, in less than a decade the specie would completely disappear.

Enric Sala
”The groupers are top predators on the reef that keep a balance and that can buffer fluctuations in the ecosystem due to other factors such as warming, pollution, et cetera, so removing these top predators is removing a key part of the ecosystem. So without the predator, without the grouper, the system becomes less stable, more unpredictable and we don’t know what changes will happen.”

Isaias Majil, Marine Protected Areas Coordinator
“All of the numbers have been showing that they are either not found at all or the numbers that were there in the past are not being represented this year.”

According to Marine Protected Areas Coordinator at the Fisheries Department, Isaias Majil, similar monitoring programs currently underway at sites along the length of the Barrier Reef are confirming Sala’s findings at Glover’s; grouper counts are markedly lower than previous years.

Every full moon in January, Nassau groupers gather at Glover’s Reef for over than a week to spawn. The animals are territorial and return to exactly the same spot every year. In 2002, Belize was a pioneer in the Caribbean when it declared spawning sites protected areas, but apparently the move was not enough as every year fishermen capitalise on the mass grouping, catching more grouper in one week than the entire year. Studies suggest that eighty-five percent of the species are caught using spear guns.

Isaias Majil
“Techniques that are being used, they mention spear fishing. Spear fishing makes it an easier target for the bigger fish to be caught and the bigger the fish the more eggs it produces and they are catching the big ones, so probably the technique needs to be addressed at first and then some other management regimes might assist in the management.”

And contrary to popular belief, local experts say Belizean fishermen are the ones illegally fishing at the spawning sites.

Rick Starr, Grouper Researcher
“Legal fishing is a problem, but the clearly illegal fishing is as big a problem and we see fishing gear on the Nassau spawning site that’s closed and if you have people fishing, poaching, and coming in illegally, the really only good way is to put somebody there to stop that. That can be the government, in the form of the Coast Guard or the Fisheries Group or it can be a local fishing group or a local environmental group who are patrolling the site and educating people and helping to keep out the illegal fishing.”

And while Majil supports the moratorium, he is quick to point out that other species are also feeling the brunt of over-fishing. But with proper education and protection campaigns, Majil is confident that efforts to save fish stock will be supported by local fishermen.

Isaias Majil
“It’s not only for groupers, but the lobster and conch is being reduced at a fast pace. They are recommending some type of management decision to be made for Glover’s. I hope that the political will is there, but definitely fishermen understand and they are seeing what is happening and I think it won’t be that hard to sell to them.”

But whatever policies local lawmakers put in place, it is clear that it will be years before Belize’s grouper population returns to its former glory. Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona.

Belize does boast other species of grouper including Black, Tiger, and Yellow Fin. However, the Sala study also shows dramatic declines in those populations.